Spending the night under ice recalls the igloos of old for visitors and gains great media exposure for this Québec City enterprise.
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There’s more than just a “Hazy Shade of Winter” to central and eastern Canada: visitors flock from around the world, or just hop over the border from the US to Canada, to enjoy the experiences the coldest season brings.
The Hôtel de Glace in Québec City, QC, is up there with the best of them. Spending the night under ice in one of the 36 rooms is a true Nordic adventure. Its unique design and beautiful sculptures are just some of the reasons it’s in the Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC)’s Signature Experiences Collection® (SEC).
The SEC program now has 160-plus members and is building upon the success of its first year. Here, in the latest instalment of CTC News SEC case studies, Jacques Desbois, founder and CEO of Hôtel de Glace, explains how the ice business is good, but challenging, tourism business.
What inspired you to get into the tourism business? And when did you start?
It all started for me as a personal passion for winter. As a kid, I had a special relationship with winter—it was the season I loved more than the others. I learnt that the core experience of winter is sleeping beneath the snow, so I learnt how to build igloos in the ’80s. I’ve followed the same rituals with my kids. Following my passion, I started an igloo company that offered breakfast and native interpretation in the ’90s. That led me to finding out about the ice-hotel concept in Sweden. Over time, we built trust, which led to me building the first Hôtel de Glace in 2001.
What would you say is the biggest challenge facing your enterprise today?
For us, it’s the creating a new hotel every year. It’s our dance with Mother Nature. The Hôtel de Glace is born each year from human imagination. Winter can be rain, slush, snow…we’re in a race with Mother Nature each time to be ready. For instance, our opening date for 2013 is January 6. We will make that timeline, no matter what the weather brings.
Tell us more about “Icy and Urban Adventure,” the experience you have that is featured in the Collection…
We moved from our original location to Québec City, a city surrounded by nature. Being there has inspired us to create a unique experience. We are in an urban park, surrounded by trees, but still 15 minutes from the centre of downtown. And we’re 15 minutes away from the ski resorts. Visitors can choose between them, or do both, and then stay in our unique environment.
How are you promoting your membership?
We work with tour operators and agencies for shows such as Bienvenue Quebec and Rendez-vous Canada so that they know we are part of the SEC. Another crucial moment is arranging and being part of FAM [familiarization] tours.
Are you getting visitors from any new international markets or greater numbers from existing ones?
Our core international market remains the US, especially states such as New England. Now that the problem with Mexicanvisas has reduced, we’re seeing more and more Spanish clients coming to stay, too. We keep an active link with the best tourism operators in France, as we’re the right language for that market. The UK provides us with a good clientele for weddings—that’s the big thing for them as they have heard of ice hotels in Canada and Sweden. We’ve also established more contact with Asia, but it’s a big race to attract those visitors and Quebec is a long way for them to come.
Has your media exposure changed domestically or internationally as a result of being a SEC member?
We invest a lot in media relations; last winter, we had hundreds of journalists. A quarter of them did an overnight stay, while the rest were just coming as part of a day trip in the city. Overall, we had somewhere between 700 to 1,000 media mentions. As for the impact of the SEC… we can never tell where we would have been without it, but it definitely had a positive effect.
One year in, what do you think of the SEC program so far? (You can be honest; we don’t bite.)
It was a great idea to create an experience collection. It will be interesting now to see how it evolves. Will it stay as a limited number or will it grow further? The danger is that if you include too many, then you lose that feeling of exclusivity. Not everything out there is special—less is better. It must be easy for the customer to understand the message you are trying to convey.
Have you considered exploring business relationships or cross-promotions with other SEC members?
We are starting to discuss FAM tours for a new stay in Quebec for the Îles de la Madeleine for seal observation in March. Clients will come in a tour that might include observers from Northwest Territories. We are working together with tourism partners on the island to bring this all together.
What’s been your biggest lesson this year as a tourism operator?
Never take any group of core clients for granted or easily gained. We’re in a tough economic global situation and the competition for international tourism is growing. And we must not forget to work our local market too so that we can count on them.
What are some of the challenges and opportunities facing Canada’s tourism industry?
We rely on winter in northeast America. It’s our most distinguishing feature. Yet climate change is making this rarer. We have to preserve it. If we play it well, we could gain a lot. You only have to look to China, which is developing its own winter tourism products, while winter tourism is already well established in northern Europe.